"The curators chose stunning works,"
says Jules Olitski's daughter Lauren
Olitski Poster. "Knowing people are
having the opportunity to see his
work would have meant a lot to him."
The artist is shown at work in his
Bear Island, N.H., studio in the 19605.
A new exhibition offers a chance to get to know
a little-known modern master.
n the 1950s and '60s, the Color Field
painters were taking the art world by
storm. Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth
Noland, Ellsworth Kelly and Morris Louis
were among a group of American artists
who transformed canvases into abstract
pools of intense color, removing all evidence
of the hand of the painter as a means of
conveying emotional meaning.
Equally influential in the movement was
Jules Olitski, a Jewish Russian-born painter.
Removing any sense of depth by staining
the surface of enormous canvases with flat,
sweeping shapes, Olitski, by the mid-'60s,
began to experiment with spray guns in an
effort to create paintings that looked like
"nothing but some colors sprayed in the air
and staying there,' he said.
He received wild acclaim for his tech-
niques and his resulting works, which
were shown alongside Kelly's and Roy
Lichtenstein's at the 1966 Venice Biennale
as well as at a solo show at the Metropolitan
Museum of Art in New York — the first
living American artist to be given such an
But Olitski's star soon fell and was never
fully regained. Nonetheless, the artist perpet-
uated a passionate and prolific career until
his death, in 2007, at the age of 84.And it is
this spectacularly thoughtful, fluid and gor-
geous evolution of works that is tracked in a
new exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art.
On display through Aug. 26, "Revelation:
Major Paintings by Jules Olitski" offers
viewers the opportunity to experience the
primary points in the artist's evolution
beyond the Color Field works for which he is
best known, or to be introduced to an often-
overlooked creative master for the first time.
In more than 30 major paintings, mas-
sively scaled and nuanced in texture and
carefully chosen by curators E.A. Carmean
With Love and Disregard: Rapture was painted
in 2002, when Olitski was 80; this series of
later works "tread a narrow line between the
Biomorphic shapes structured
extraordinarily alluring and the downright off-
around the concept of light
putting," writes curator Karen Wilkin.
emerging from a dark ground,
inspired by the lighting in
Rembrandt's paintings, are
featured in Jules Olitski's Purple
Golubchik (1962) from his Stain
"Revelation: Major Paintings by Jules
Olitski" runs through Aug. 26 at the
Toledo Museum of Art. For more
information, call (800) 644-6862 or
visit www.toledomuseum.org .
Jr., Karen Wilkin and Alison de Lima
Greene and organized by the Kemper
Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City,
Mo.,"Revelation" offers a new and illumi-
nating look at nearly 50 years of Olitski's
Olitski was born Jevel Demikovsky in
1922 in Russia (now Ukraine); his father, a
commissar in the army, was executed while
his mother was pregnant with him. When
he was 1 year of age, his mother packed him
and her mother up and moved to be close to
her brother in New York; the family found a
home in Brooklyn.
A marriage was arranged between the
future artist's mother and Hyman Olitsky
(the painter adopted the name of his step-
father but changed the spelling), but she
always mourned the "love of her life, her
first husband',' says Lauren Olitski Poster,
the painter's daughter and director of the
Jules Olitski Estate in Marlboro, Vt.
While her father was deeply spiritual
and identified as a Jew, Poster was not hala-
chically born a Jew; her mother, Olitski's
second of three wives, was not Jewish. Poster
formally converted to Judaism in her 20s.
She has a sister, Eve Olitski, from her father's
Studying art at the National Academy of
Design and the Beaux Arts Institute in New
York, followed by more schooling in Paris
courtesy of the G.I. Bill, then receiving a
B.A. and an M.A. from New York University,
Jules Olitski taught painting for many years
at Long Island University in New York and
at Bennington College in Vermont. He was
already in his mid-40s when he began to
gain recognition for his own work.
"He had a tremendous curiosity in the
studio': says Poster. "He was always ques-
tioning,'What would happen if I put this
next to this, use this material in this way,
used this tool to move it around?' But he
ultimately felt that a painting needed a
strong structure and had to be built on
something. New mediums and tools aren't
going to work unless the painting is built in
a way that will hold it together. And that he
based on the Old Masters."
What drove Olitski was a desire for his
work to hold up to that standard. "He had
reproductions of El Greco and Rembrandt
tacked up in his studio and visited the
real works whenever possible,' says Poster.
"Those were what was in his head when he
was creating, no matter what he was creat-
ing, and asking himself, `Can I make a paint-
ing as good as El Greco?"'
At least one person thought so.
Clement Greenberg, essayist and among
the most highly regarded art critics of the
modernist era, called Olitski "the best paint-
er alive,' an assertion Greenberg retained
throughout Olitski's entire career, beyond his
minimal yet complex Color Field Stain then
Spray paintings and into his 1970s return
to applying paint in a thick impasto, hear-
kening back to his predecessors' gestural
abstraction, as well as in the Baroque paint-
ings and the High Baroque paintings of
the 1980s, brimming with lush, irridescent
colors and textures.
And in his last paintings, Olitski "accentu-
ated physicality as an expressive element','
wrote Rachael Blackburn Cozad, director
and CEO of the Kemper Museum. "In his
Late paintings, the artist expressed an
almost unbridled sense of freedom and
drama, at once timeless, audacious and per-
haps even lurid."
Like Monet, Matisse and a host of other
masters, Olitski is an artist whose work
truly improves with age. "And it all comes
together in the last room of the exhibition','
says Poster. "It's charged:'
"Olitski's abstract paintings over the years
seem to draw on the whole legacy of western
art history," says curator Karen Wilkin. "He
was a passionate admirer of Rembrandt, of
El Greco. Somehow the rich visual qualities
of those paintings, their extraordinary use
of dark and light, for expressive reasons, find
their way into Olitski's abstractions, in corn-
pletely contemporary terms and detached
from reference but with all the associations
of reference. It's magic"
Olitski once referenced a favorite quote by
poet and philosopher G.K. Chesterton:
"There is at the back of every artist's mind
something like a pattern and a type of archi-
tecture. The original quality in any man of
imagination is imagery. It is a thing like the
landscape of his dreams; the sort of world he
would like to make or in which he would like
to wander, the strange flora and fauna, his
own secret planet, the sort of thing he likes
to think about. This general atmosphere, and
pattern or a structure of growth, governs all
his creations, however varied."
June 28 . 2012